Shopping for skincare is hard work and a lot of it comes down to complex product labels that are difficult to decipher. Sometimes it’s just easier to rely on marketing claims on the front of product packaging and hope for the best. But, the problem is this information is selective and designed to be attractive without telling you the whole picture, so you won’t know if the product will actually work for you or if it will live up to its label claims.

In contrast, the back of product packaging is often jam-packed with unpronounceable scientific names and details that you won’t necessarily take in upon first glance. But this is where all the juicy, useful information sits like details about the formulation, ingredients, expiry date, and even things like if the product is eco-friendly or cruelty-free. This type of information needs to be included somewhere on the packaging in accordance with local laws – just like nutrition labels on food items – so that products can be monitored and regulated.

Yet, while it may be difficult to decode product labels, it’s not impossible, and it’s a great habit to get into when skincare shopping to find suitable products for your skin, or to avoid toxic ingredients or allergens. Here are 5 of the most important things to know when reading labels including icons, phrases, and ingredients:

1. The order matters: ingredients are listed from highest to lowest

Skincare products are made up of a combination of different ingredients including active and inactive ingredients. The active ingredients are the ones that will actually target your skin concerns (think Hyaluronic acid, Niacinamide, Salicylic acid), while inactive ingredients are what give your products their texture, color, and body (think water, preservatives to last on your shelf, and thickeners).

When reading the full list of ingredients on a product, those with the highest concentration, or the biggest ratio, will be listed first; the rest should be listed in descending order. This means if you recognize really great active ingredients at the end of the list, you won’t actually benefit much from them. And vice versa, if an ingredient you’re weary of is listed with the first five ingredients at the top (i.e. bad alcohols or fragrance), chances are the product will contain high concentrations of these ingredients.

However, it’s also important to note that just because an ingredient isn’t at the top of the list, doesn’t mean it’s not important – some ingredients are actually more effective, or safer in lower concentrations (think Retinol) and will therefore be often be listed in the middle or towards the end of the list.


A close up on skincare ingredient labels

2. The open-jar symbol = how long your product will last once it’s opened.

When inspecting your product packaging, do you ever notice an icon of a round open pot with the numbers 6M, 12M or 24M in it? This symbol is an important guide to tell you when to replace your product. Packaging may not always mention an exact expiry date because they contain preservatives that will help keep your skincare fresh and bacteria-free for as long as possible. However, skincare is still perishable and won’t last forever.

The M on this symbol stands for ‘months’. So if you remember roughly when you bought the item, you can tell if it’s passed its use-by date or how long you have left to use it. For example, if you bought a face cream at the beginning of the year and it says ‘6M’ on the packaging, make sure to use it up within 6 months, or certain ingredients may start to decay. If applied to your skin when they’ve already expired, you run the risk of clogging your pores, acne breakouts, or irritations.

But aside from being aware of this little symbol, always make sure to give your product a quick sniff before applying – if it looks off or smells unusual, these are other indicators that it’s not good to use anymore, so bin it – it’s not worth the risk!

3. Don’t be afraid of complex scientific names

Ok we get it, ingredient names are usually extremely long, full of scientific jargon, and the whole process pf reading them can be overwhelming. But it’s important to get to know the basics, because some ingredients may sound harmful when they’re actually not, while others might not look that intimidating but you should actually be worried about them.

For a while, there was a rumor going around saying that ‘if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t put it on your face’. But the truth is this is simply fear-mongering and totally unnecessary. A lot of ingredients are listed by their scientific or Latin names rather than their natural or popular names. This means that while they might sound scary, they could actually just be ingredients that you know very well and are completely safe for your skin.

For example, Wheatgerm Oil is also known as Triticum Vulgare; Vitamin C is also known as Sodium Ascorbate or Ascorbic Acid; Green Tea leaf extract is also known as Camellia Sinensis; Licorice extract is also known as Dipotassium glycyrrhizate. Or when it comes to alcohols, you might be put off with the word ‘alcohol’ itself, but there are actually fatty alcohols, which are good and safe for your skin, and volatile alcohols, which can be damaging to your skin – they each have very different names including Cetyl alcohol, Butylene Glycol, and isopropyl alcohol.


3 skincare products showing the back of their product labels

4. Avoid these ingredients at all costs

While you don’t need to be afraid of all scary-sounding ingredients, there are some that should definitely be avoided because they can be harmful for your skin and some have even been linked to serious health complications like cancers, tumors, hormonal imbalance, and allergic reactions. These toxic ingredients can be quite common in a lot of personal care products and are usually added as preservatives (to make your products last longer), as emulsifiers (to help the ingredients mix together better), or as texture enhancers.

They are an important part of skincare formulations but there are lots of safer alternatives that can be used instead. Here are some of the most common toxic ingredients found in skincare products and their alternative names:

  1. Parabens: watch out for words with this suffix Isobutylparabens, Methylparaben, and Propylparaben.
  2. Ethanolamine: watch out for words with this suffix such as diaethanolamine, monoethanolamine and triethanolamine.
  3. Phthalates: watch Out for abbreviations including DBP, DEHP, DEP, DMP.
  4. Butylated Hydroxytoluene: watch out for the abbreviation BHT
  5. Formaldehyde: watch out for Formalin (formaldehyde in a water solution), DMDM Hydantoin, Quaternium-15, and Methenamine.

Read more about toxic ingredients.

5. Look out for the word ‘Parfum’

If you’re sensitive to fragrances, it’s important to know how to identify them on product labels as they won’t always say outright if they are frangrance-free or unscented. Usually, fragrance ingredients won’t be identified individually; instead, they will be listed more generally as ‘fragrance’, ‘perfume’, ‘aroma’, or one of the most popular ones is ‘parfum’ (French for perfume). This can mean they are synthetic or natural fragrances; they won’t usually reveal which type on the label because legally they don’t have to.

You may occasionally find some specific scientific names for fragrances such as amyl cinnamal, benzyl alcohol, benzyl salicylate, cinnamyl alcohol, Citral, coumarin, eugenol, geraniol, Hydroxycitronellal, and linalool. Look out for these if it does say any of the general terms above.

Finally, it’s important to note that essential oils or natural fragrant ingredients can also be irritants so look out for anything that flower extracts like Rose, Lavender, Orange, or Eucalyptus.


About the Author

Obsessed with writing, especially about skincare, lifestyle and fashion. Potato chip enthusiast and lover of live music and old school vinyl records.

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